August 9 is the memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Germany, the youngest of seven children. Her father, Siegfried Stein, was an observant Jew who owned a lumber business. Her mother, Auguste, lived by careful Jewish observance. Edith was in fact her eleventh child, but four of Auguste's and Siegfried's children had died in the early days of their marriage, so that there were seven when Edith was born.
Edith was less than two years old in July, 1893, when her father died of sunstroke. Her mother took over the struggling lumberyard and was successful in the work. Auguste took Edith’s oldest brother into the business, while Edith’s oldest sister, Else, took care of the youngest children. The school the children attended provided a religious education, but of poor quality. Edith later wrote that during her teens, she gave up praying until she was 21 years old. Some people have construed that to mean that she became an atheist, although others think it more likely that she simply became indifferent to her Jewish faith for a time.
She then attended two years at the university in Breslau and then went to the University of Gottingen. In 1905, Edmund Husserl arrived at Gottingen, and other phenomenologists followed, beginning the “Gottingen School” of phenomenology. Several of the phenomenologist philosophers were returning to their faith, and Edith began to pray again. Her longing for truth, she later said, was “a prayer in itself”.
In 1916, Husserl was called to a full professorship at the University of Freiberg. Edith, who had received her doctorate from him summa cum laude, became his assistant. She spent her time organizing Husserl’s manuscripts and notes, while longing to do her own work. After 1-1/2 years, she resigned, but maintained her academic friendships.
Around the age of 30, she read The Life of St. Teresa of Avila and was captivated by it. She began to study the Catechism and a missal. Only after she had mastered those, she went into a Catholic church for the first time and asked a priest to baptize her. This began a theological discussion that covered the range of Catholic doctrine. He soon scheduled her baptism for New Year’s Day, 1922.
Edith wanted to quickly enter a religious order, but her spiritual advisor thought better of that. Yet she was given a job teaching at the Dominican convent school of St. Magdalena in Speyer. There, she taught German classes and later gave instruction in Latin, English and French. She lived in the convent, ate convent food, received a modest salary, and studied the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. She often knelt in prayer for hours at a time alone in addition to attending the services. She began the work of translating, from Latin to German, St. Thomas’s Disputed Questions on Truth.
Her friend, Father Erich Przywara, S.J., suggested to her the Benedictine Abbey of Beuron, where she spent Holy Week and Easter 1928. Rising usually before 4:00 a.m., she prayed the Office daily and continued to spend hours alone in prayer and meditation.
Her translation of St. Thomas’s work appeared in two volumes in 1931 and 1932, in current German, together with notes that described St. Thomas’s terms in a way that made his thinking understandable from the perspective of contemporary phenomenology. She was becoming known for her work. She began to help others who wanted to know more about Christianity, and became godmother to several of her Jewish friends who were baptized. Her sister Rosa, who was then taking care of their aging mother, prayed and waited until their mother’s death before she was baptized.
In early 1932, Edith accepted a position on the faculty of the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy at Munster, where she lived in simplicity in the Collegium Marianum, being watched as her reputation was increasingly well known for her knowledge of both Thomist philosophy and phenomenology.
The Third Reich was established in early 1933. Soon, news reports began to filter in about the oppression of the Jewish people. Edith began to see, as she said, “that God had put a heavy hand upon His people, and that the fate of this people would also be mine.” She believed it was the Cross that was being placed on them, and that most of them did not understand it, and that she would willingly take it up “in the name of all.” She wrote to the Pope warning him that Catholics would also be persecuted. She received in response a blessing, and she wondered if he thought about her letter later.
Before long, Jews were no longer able to lecture. No longer able to help others through that work, she was finally allowed to become a Discalced Carmelite nun, her longtime wish. Her Jewish mother wept at the news, and did not write to her for some time before finally resuming their correspondence. On October 2, 1933, she accompanied her mother to the synagogue for the last time, and two days later, she entered the Cologne Carmel. As a nun, she took the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Living as a Discalced Carmelite nun in enclosure, she expected to give up her scholarly writing, but she was soon encouraged to resume her writing. Although she was cut off from most of the news of events outside of the convent, she was kept informed of Jewish affairs. She believed that she had been called to suffer for her people, as a mission to bring many home. By 1936, she completed reworking Potency and Act into her master work of Finite and Eternal Being, and her life’s work was done. She continued to write, including her book about St. John of the Cross, titled The Science of the Cross. That year, her mother died, and her sister Rosa was baptized.
As Hitler was elected in 1938, Edith became outspoken against the National Socialists. In November of that year, as synagogues were burned, she had to leave her convent for one in the Netherlands. By late 1941, the prioress ordered Edith’s letters burned to protect against their revealing her new location. Holland was becoming too dangerous, and a move to Switzerland was proposed for both Edith and Rosa, who had become a Third Order Carmelite. The move was not approved by the civil authorities in time.
By July 1942, the deportation of Jewish families to Polish concentration camps had begun, except for Jews who had been part of Christian communities before January 1941. Dutch bishops decided that a joint letter of protest against the deportations would be read in all Catholic parishes in Holland on Sunday, July 26, 1942.
The following Sunday, the government reacted. Without warning, all non-Aryan members of Dutch religious communities were arrested, including Edith and Rosa. They spent August 5 to August 6 or 7 at Westerbork, where 1200 Jewish Catholics were interned. Afterward, they were taken to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers, probably on August 9, 1942.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987. At the time, some of her Jewish family members would have preferred that she be remembered as one of many Jews who died in the concentration camps. She was canonized October 1, 1998.
Herbstrith, Waltraud, Edith Stein: a Biography, Ignatius Press, 1985.
Posselt, Teresia Renata, O.C.D., Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (ed. Susanne M. Batzdorff, Josephine Koeppel and John Sulllivan, with text, commentary, and explanatory notes), ICS Publications, 2005.
Stein, Edith, Selected Writings, with Comments and Reminiscences by her neice Susanne M. Batzdorff, Templegate, 1990.